by Fr. Denis Lemieux.
"Well, it’s time to start thinking about Lent!" Every year on about January 7, the day after Epiphany, with Christmas decorations just barely coming down and being stored away for the year, Catherine Doherty would declare this with her customary vigor and bravado.
Quiet groans would ripple through the community. With the remains of the roast turkey still showing up in the soup and the last stray Christmas cookies still coming out at tea time, it’s time… to start… thinking… about… Lent? Really? Already?
Well, yes. In the Eastern Christian calendar Catherine had been raised in, and in our old Latin Rite calendar, preparatory Sundays for Lent would begin three or four weeks before Ash Wednesday.
Given some of the earlier dates Lent can begin, those Sundays could very well start shortly after the feast of the Epiphany.
So, while I’m not sure exactly when this issue of Restoration is going to be reaching all you good people, in the spirit of Catherine de Hueck Doherty, I say to you that it’s time to start thinking about Lent!
OK, so for the two or three of you still reading this article, let’s start by talking about fasting.
This Year of Faith is a good time not only to return to the practices of faith and deepen our commitment to them, but also to delve into the meaning of these practices.
Faith is all about understanding. Do we understand fasting very well these days? Why do we fast? Should we? What’s does it mean, anyhow?
It’s a big question nowadays. There is little in our Catholic faith that goes against contemporary culture more deeply than fasting.
In North America anyhow, happiness and the good life are wedded to the maximizing of consumption. To live in a big house, drive a big car, and eat and eat until we are stuffed—this is the North American view of the good life.
So… fasting? Eating less? Even (gasp of horror!) eating nothing some days? Madness! Why do such a thing? In this cultural context, we need a deep vision of what fasting is about, to motivate us to actually do it and to profit from it spiritually.
Why would God care about our eating habits anyhow? That’s the key question.
Fasting is clearly a central spiritual practice from the earliest Old Testament stories and throughout all the centuries of Christian holiness. Why does God care what we eat?
I maintain that the meaning and value of fasting goes into the very heart of reality, of God, of creation, of the human person, of sin, of the saving work of Christ—the whole big picture of reality.
And so to really talk about fasting, we have to first talk about all that stuff, at least a bit, so that we can see where fasting fits into everything else, to see its place in the broad vision of faith Christ gives us.
There are lots of different ways to talk about this broad vision. I want to start by talking about two basic ways of existing, the names of which are deeply scriptural, but which we can easily reason our way towards, too.
These ways are the flesh and the spirit. (cf. John 6:63, Romans 8, Gal 3-5). Now these two ways of being are both in themselves good, both from God, both intended by him for his own good purposes.
It is the proper relation, the right ordering of these two complementary realities which is the whole crucial question of our religion, of salvation. But to start with, what are they?
Flesh, or matter, is finite and divisible. If I have two apples, and I eat one and give one away, I have no more apples. This is the fundamental nature of all material reality. You can have your cake, and you can eat it, but you can’t do both. The whole science of economics fundamentally flows from the finite nature of material reality.
Spirit, by contrast, is indivisible and at least potentially infinite. A familiar example of this is knowledge. If I know something, and I give you that knowledge by teaching it to you, my own store of knowledge is not decreased. If anything, it is increased.
Unlike the apple which I lose by giving away or destroy by using (eating), knowledge and other spiritual goods can be both given and kept, used and increased at the same time.
Flesh is plastic, changeable, malleable. That apple, when I eat it, is assimilated into me, and becomes part of my body. If the apple is not eaten, it rots into compost and returns to the soil. All matter is like that; because it is finite and divisible it is also mortal, corruptible.
Spiritual things, by contrast, are unchangeable. If I know 2+2=4, that knowledge is eternal, fixed, unchangeable. Even if I forget it, no power on earth or in heaven can make it equal 5. Matter, also, is locked into itself—an apple is an apple, until it ceases to be.
Spirit, on the other hand, is ordered towards communion, communication. Knowledge is increased by sharing; love (the other great spiritual good) is only love if it is given.
Now all beings are either flesh or spirit, with one notable exception. God, the angels, and immaterial realities such as truth, goodness, the moral law, the sciences are all spiritual beings. Inorganic matter, plants, animals, are material, fleshly beings.
Human beings are the one exception to this division—material beings animated by immaterial spirits, a strange hybrid of two very different realities.
In part 2, I will show how this meeting of spirit and matter in man is central to the whole Christian revelation of God’s design for creation.
Here is a short preview of the next installment:
Flesh and spirit exist in a certain order in us; sin is the disorder of flesh and spirit; the whole work of restoration and salvation in Christ is the triumphant and glorious ordering of flesh to spirit and our spirit to the Spirit who is the source of all spiritual life and being.
This grand re-ordering, this restoration, has cosmic and eternal implications, and yet applies to every little thing we do each day, including fasting. See you next time!
to be continued
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